Food, Family, and Fire: Celebrating the Holidays Ukrainian Style

Food, Family, and Fire: Celebrating the Holidays Ukrainian Style

Unlike the Christmas Day commonly celebrated on December 25, many of those who follow the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic faith continue to adhere to their traditional January 6 and 7 celebrations.  This is because Ukrainians like myself, along with communities in Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Russia, still follow the earlier Julian calendar, as opposed to the more recent Gregorian.  Coptic Christians from Egypt and Ethiopia celebrate on January 7 as well.

The Immigrant Experience

As ethnic Ukrainian immigrants from Poland, with a long history of cultural suppression, deportations, and forced resettlements, my family immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s.  Here we have kept our traditions alive, with Christmas being the most prominent.

On the eve of January 6, my family sits down to a traditional meatless meal of twelve dishes symbolizing the Twelve Apostles, as soon as the first star is seen in the sky.  Pre-COVID-19, this may have meant upwards of thirty individuals getting together in far too small spaces.  Often, groups of traditionally attired and costumed carolers brave the frigid temperatures to visit the homes of local Ukrainian families.  In return, they are offered sweet and savory delicacies, as well as the ubiquitous glasses of vodka.  One of these visitors is the Goat, or Koza, a type of trickster.  Although the Goat traditionally is not a respected figure, he is also said to symbolize wisdom and usher in an abundant harvest.

Traditional Dishes
  • Varenyky (Вареники) – Variously Filled Dumplings

The highlight of the meal is always Varenyky, small flour based dumplings, also known as Pierogi in Poland and the smaller, meat filled Pelmeni in Russia.  Although most are boiled, pan friend versions are available as well.

My family favourites include sauerkraut and mushroom filling and potato and tvorog cheese.  At other times of the year, savory varieties are often topped with fried onions and bacon fat, along with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill, while sweet fruit versions are topped with sour cream and sugar.

Different varieties of this classic beet soup can be found all over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and parts of Central Asia.  In my family’s traditions, we eat a vegetarian broth version with small mushroom dumplings called ushka.  The soup is finished off with fresh dill.

Our beloved soup is not without controversy.  There is currently an ongoing clash between Ukraine and Russia over its origin, as a chef has attempted to designate the soup as Ukraine cultural heritage thorough “an application to the United Nations’ cultural body, UNESCO.”  In many ways, “[t]he borscht dispute highlights deeper grievances between Ukraine and Russia,” given a long history of imperialism and current tensions.

Other favourites include Oliviye Salad, which my family makes without ham, instead focusing on potato, egg, carrot, green apple, onion, peas, and mayonnaise.  It is also known as Ensalada Rusa throughout Latin America.

While our Christmas Eve version must be vegetarian, meat and rice version are also quite popular, often topped with a tomato based or chicken stock-based sauce.

Often made with wild boletus mushrooms, this wild mushroom gravy is a must for all varenky and holubtsi.

Kutya is a traditional sweet dish made with wheat, walnuts, poppy seed, and honey.  Traditionally, a spoonful is thrown up on the ceiling; if it sticks, good luck will come.

Holiday Traditions
  • Didukh (Дідух) – Traditional Wheat Sheath

One tradition during Christmas is to bring in a Didukh (wheat sheath) after the sighting of the first star and placed beside an icon.  The Didukh is then burnt to honour our ancestors.  During pagan times, it was meant to protect the family from evil, hold “the strength of family ancestors, [and] symbolizes the preservation of memorable family events and traditions.”  It was traditionally made from the stalk of last year’s wheat harvest.

  • Malanka (Маланка) – Ukrainian New Year

Malanka is our New Year’s celebration, traditionally falling on January 13, according to the Julian calendar.  The day is believed to be based on supernatural and animalistic, pre-Christian secular, pagan beliefs.  In the diasporic community, including here in Toronto, Malanka festivities are held yearly by various community organizations.

  • Pavuk (Павук) – Handmade Straw Spider

Made of straw, these handmade diamond shapes in the form of a spider protect the home from negative energy.   The previous year’s pavuk is burnt following Malanka to make way for the current year’s version.  This tradition is believed to be based on an old folk creation tale, which stated that a spider spun a web so intricate, that the universe was created.

Бажаю вам щасливих свят! (I wish you all a happy holiday!)

[Editor’s Note:  If this seems a little late, that’s because it is. I meant for it to come out in our first original issue this year, but it got lost during the holidays, and I just found it again late last week.  I still thought it was worth a look, because I always find holiday traditions of other cultures interesting.]

%d bloggers like this: